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Evangelizing World Class Cities

by Ray Bakke

Definitions of cities fall into two broad categories. Louis Wirth defines cities by forms - in other words, by structural criteria such as size, density or heterogeneity. (1) Lewis Mumford defines cities by functions, stating that "the unique office of the city is to increase the variety, velocity, extent, and continuity of human intercourse." (2) The term urban connotes both places and processes. Los Angeles, for example, certainly qualifies as an urban place, but that does not exhaust its roles or functions. The media exports urban experiences and values, creates new language and changes expectations of rural America. One might call this "the Los Angelization of America." In other words, urbanization goes beyond places with boundaries to processes that affect us all.
With notable sunbelt exceptions, most large cities in postindustrial societies are losing people. But they are far from witnessing a decline of urbanization. Instead, large cities are extending their influence over ever-increasing spheres of life. As forms or places, large cities may be regarded as becoming less significant, but as functions or processes major cities represent continued growth and accelerated significance.


Roles of the City

Cities are sometimes classified by roles: cultural, economic or administrative. These categories enable us to see obvious differences among most cities. For example, Chicago, São Paulo and Bombay are clearly economic or industrial cities. Boston, Benares and Rio de Janeiro have primarily cultural roles in their respective countries. Washington, D.C., New Delhi and Brasilia assume roles of governance. No one can doubt that the structures of community life, histories, ethos, population profiles and expectations of these cities are broadly shaped or influenced by the roles they play in the larger society. On a smaller scale, numerous port cities and market or county-seat towns maintain similar roles with equal regional significance for those seeking to design ministry strategies within them.

The differences between large cities and small cities or towns are of degree, not kind. Realistically, then, a culture wide decentralization of Western world cities represents not a decline in urbanization but rather a new reality. Suburban sprawl and the growth of formerly rural towns represent an extension of cities and not an escape from them. Because the roles which formerly belonged to cities are now being distributed broadly throughout the developed world, the social matrix in which God's church functions, therefore, seems to be vastly different from most people's perceptions of it. The import, however, for worldwide urban evangelization can be summarized here as a threefold rationale for the concerted evangelization of world-class cities. These three elements relate to the demographic, prophetic and strategic perspective of the city.

Demographic Perspective of the City

Worldwide urban growth has been pegged at 7.2% a year. At that rate, city populations will double in a decade. Seen concretely, the birth-over-death rate alone is creating a new Chicago and Los Angeles (six million people) in the world every month. Mexico City has passed Tokyo and Shanghai to become the world's largest city with a current growth rate of about eighty thousand persons a month, the equivalent of a million a year. A little more than half of this growth is by birth, the balance by immigration.
Urban growth in the modern developing world and that of cities a generation ago are characterized by three fundamental differences. First, current urban growth in developing nations is based upon a rapidly increasing birth rate, not simply a transfer of population from rural areas; rural areas are growing as rapidly. Second, cities everywhere are shifting from labor-intensive to capital-intensive economies. The jobs needed to serve these growing populations just do not exist and will not exist for millions of people who come to the city hoping for a better life. But current data shows that massive reindustrialization for the sake of creating urban jobs worldwide is not happening. It is very unlikely that it ever will happen.


Finally, cities more recently formed have assumed there were neither limits to energy nor constraints on their environments. Now cities know better, and their prospects for dealing with these realities are not hopeful. Seen globally, then, in terms of numbers, our world of 4.3 billion people is nearly fifty percent urban.

A Prophetic Perspective of the City

A second aspect of a rationale for the study and evangelization of cities is based on the role of cities as the research and development component of society as a whole. What shows up in cities today, whether new kinds of crime or new discoveries for medical care, will arrive in non-city areas tomorrow. Therefore, the future for rural and small-city dwellers is visible in large cities today. Mission strategists have not been quick to recognize this. For practical reasons, therefore, any constructive scenario for evangelism training might test ministry design and skills in the urban context before projecting it upon the culture at large.
In rural areas nearly every relationship is a primary or emotionally significant one. Almost everyone has a general relationship to everyone and everything in a routinized fashion. Not so in the city. There we choose relationships, and life is much more specialized. Thus, people for whom life was formerly a series of primary relationships must adapt to a life of mostly secondary relationships. This produces all sorts of specialized, pluralistic behavior and belief systems. In this setting, training can generate and test a variety of new strategies for evangelism.


Ghettos, for example, show up first in cities usually as responses to some of the dynamics just described. But ghettos per se are not the real problem of our times but are visible symptoms of fundamental, systematic processes. To treat ghettos as the basic urban disease, or even to make them special targets of evangelization strategies as the sine qua non of urban ministry, is like treating a sick person's temperature rather than the disease. Christians need strategies to cope with broad urban realities - a plethora of tactics, models and styles. Obviously, no one form of ministry constitutes an adequate response to urban pluralism.

Strategies for Evangelism

Lamentably, we observe many single-strategy evangelizations for large cities. In these cases the evangelists do not recognize the need for multiple responses to the urbanization of the world. God's people should seek to minister not only in the city but to it as well. Cities have inherited an unusual share of all our problems and problem peoples who have dropped out of other places. Evangelism is most effective when the passion for evangelistic effectiveness is adorned with broad-ranging concerns and goals for the renewal of the whole of city life.

As in the days of old, urban evangelization is most effectively accomplished by those within the city itself (See, for example Jer 29-4-7 and Is 58:12.) Is it not ironic that many contemporary Christians who claim a high view of Scripture continue to ignore the biblical truth stated plainly in hundreds of Old and New Testament texts dealing with urban mission? Surely "the blessed hope" is the Lord's intervention, not the church's continued flight from the presence and task of urban evangelization.

If our analysis is correct, evangelization of the cities today will affect the countryside tomorrow. Surely the cost accountants of mission budgets cannot fail to see the significance of urban mission as a high-growth investment, even though in the short run it often costs more than ministry in rural areas. For nearly two thousand years the church has possessed the mandate to disciple all the peoples or nations of the world. Now, in this generation, we are discovering where these peoples and nations are located: in the large cities of the world. Urban pastors and missionaries need a global perspective to interpret the modern city. They need international skills to live and serve there. Among the nearly sixty thousand residents (1980 census) within a one-square-mile area of an inner-city Chicago neighborhood, about fifty nations of the world are now represented. Theologically, one might ask, "What is God trying to accomplish by the urbanization of his world and the internationalization of our cities?" The fact that he is doing it is undeniable. Could it be his way of showing us the priority now for urban evangelization?

Every city now has links with populations "back home." To reach out to a person in the name of Jesus Christ in East London is to simultaneously reach out to the Punjab. In Paris it is to impact Algeria. Reaching out in Amsterdam affects Surinam, Goa or Indonesia. In Berlin it affects Turkey and other places. Though a declining population is characteristic of some world-class cities, others are experiencing rapid growth. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is in the process of urbanizing. With their large and international populations, major cities have become a microcosm of the world and thereby provide a place to develop and test strategies of world evangelism.

Cities continue to challenge churches and mission agencies to develop specialized structures and functions. But by no means can most cities be classified as evangelized. Even if they were "reached" today, at the rate cities recycle peoples and cultures, they may be "unreached" by tomorrow. Strategies for evangelism must be devised that will meet the task of the whole city, reaching every group and person head-on.

1. Louis Wirth, Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956).
2. Lewis Murnford, Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1970).
Raymond J. Bakke is a professor of ministry at Northern Baptist seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and is cofounder of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE). This article originally appeared in Faithful in Christ Jesus, ©1984 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of the United States of America


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